Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 18, 2019
Norma Broude, ed. Gauguin's Challenge: New Perspectives after Postmodernism New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2018. 328 pp.; 8 color ills.; 65 b/w ills. Paper $34.95 (9781501342509)

Gauguin’s Challenge: New Perspectives after Postmodernism, edited by Norma Broude, is an important and intriguing book published on the threshold of a worldwide examination and redefinition of social mores concerning, among other injustices, the historical depiction of indigenous and colonized women in Western art. Broude’s chosen texts both precede and prepare for, but mostly fall short of, current efforts by many to explore Paul Gauguin’s perceived status as a social pariah, an arrogant white colonialist, and a predator of young Polynesian women. For decades, many shrugged off his behavior as that of “a man of his times.” Then, in the 1970s, as Broude notes in her introduction, “Paul Gauguin became an artist whom feminist art historians loved to hate” (1). Linda Nochlin “exposed the gendered operations of the gaze in ‘high art,’ and it was a wake-up call for emerging feminist art historians in the early 1970s” (1). In the ensuing years, however, Western scholars focused more on the works than on the comportment of the man. There is a major element missing in their research: the voices of indigenous women.

In her chapter focusing on Flora Tristan’s militant feminist writings and their influence on her grandson, Paul Gauguin, Broude outlines the extent of the artist’s awareness of this social reformer’s theories and activism. With precise references, Broude points out where these ideas surface in Gauguin’s own writings. At the same time, she touches on the subject of Gauguin’s sexual exploits in light of his assumption of colonial, white-male prerogative. The door is opened to much more research and analysis on this subject: for example, Gauguin wrote extensively about his opposition to marriage and the oppression of women and their lack of opportunities, suggesting that his paradise would be characterized by total equality between the sexes. Nonetheless, his life choices belie his intellectual musings. These contradictions underline the difficulty of simply dismissing Gauguin as what today we would call a “sexual tourist” rather than using his story to study and even critique the society of his time.

Focusing on Gauguin’s 1897 text “The Catholic Church and Modern Times,” Barbara Larson bravely delves into the vast realms of psychology, theosophy, physiology, and other philosophical preoccupations of late nineteenth-century science and pseudoscience. She makes an intriguing effort to recast Gauguin’s 1888 Vision of the Sermon in terms of nineteenth-century fascination with hypnotism. She introduces evolutionism as a means of reading Where Are We Coming From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (179). Her approach needs to be balanced, however, by an acknowledgment of the impact of both Breton and Polynesian traditions on Gauguin’s creative practice. The small cow in Vision of the Sermon, for example, grounds the painting’s symbolism by suggesting the traditional sport of Breton wrestling. Many of the golden-skinned figures in Where Are We Coming From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? anchor the work in Polynesian lore.

Irina Stotland also explores esoteric literature as she analyzes the transcendent androgyny seen in Gauguin’s portraits. While some of the sources she cites seem a bit obscure, they open up new avenues of thought for contemporary scholars. Gauguin’s own Oviri (“savage” in Tahitian) is certainly an androgynous self-portrait, but associating him/her with Séraphîta, Flora Tristan, incest, fertility, perversity, and cruelty (58) appears a bit extreme; these associations ignore the role of the traditional Polynesian figure Oviri (a Polynesian word for  “savage”). The message the 1894 ceramic Oviri carries from the artist himself to tomorrow’s artists is to destroy past artistic traditions. It stares into the future from Gauguin’s gravesite in Atuona, challenging artists to “dare anything” to create a new artistic vocabulary.

Linda Goddard’s chapter further explores Gauguin’s self-portraits in relation to literary texts, particularly the various personalities portrayed by the artist in both his writings and visual art. These personalities range from that of the “primitive savage” (15) to the fabricated “great professor” from the time of Tamerlane, Mani Vehbi Zumbul-Zadi (27), to an almost Surrealist morphing of the artist’s own personality from one form to another. Goddard summarizes: “By adopting different identities as a writer, he could temporarily become someone other than himself, and in the process, unsettle a series of related binary oppositions between male and female, civilized and savage, writer and artist” (26).

Gauguin’s spiritual state at the end of his life is a focus of June E. Hargrove’s article. Citing such Western sources as Paul Cézanne, Thomas Carlyle, Gerald Massey, and theosophy, as well as the rather abstruse topic of metempsychosis, Hargrove unites the Marquesan paintings The Bathers and Marquesan Man in Red Cape into a traditional diptych: the former represents “the natural man who protests conventions,” while the latter “is the ideal prophet who transcends the worldly” (204). This is an interesting speculation that is enriched by new research suggesting that the male figure in Marquesan Man in Red Cape was inspired by the artist’s friend Haapuani. This tall, striking Marquesan was a deacon in the Protestant church in Atuona, but he had also been trained by his family as a taua, a priest or sorcerer of the ancient ways. This dual spiritual role enriches the symbolic complexity of the painting (see Caroline Boyle-Turner, Paul Gauguin and the Marquesas: Paradise Found? [Pont-Aven, France: Editions Vagamundo, 2016], 144–51).

Dario Gamboni deftly analyzes the development of what he calls “ambiguity” in Gauguin’s work, and emphasizes how deeply the artist understood this concept, which was also dear to many of his peers, especially Stéphane Mallarmé. Gauguin quickly grasped the necessity of creating “a musical poem without libretto” (104) by avoiding allegory and illustration through mere suggestion, based on color, line, and form. Gamboni extols Gauguin’s “high level of theoretical reflection, his unprejudiced curiosity” (121), but he does not speculate on the topic of the artist’s lack of concern, for example, over the pain caused by his abandonment of his idealized Polynesian female companions. We need to hear their voices in order to have a clearer picture of Gauguin’s approach to his models. In the next essay, Alastair Wright, by focusing on Gauguin’s Noa Noa, clearly underscores the artist’s reliance on the Symbolist poetry of Charles Baudelaire and Mallarmé to suggest the “paradise lost” in his Tahitian prints. At the same time the author avoids any reference to the French colonialists’ role in destroying this perceived idyllic past.

We are entering a new era, however: global awareness of the indignities forced upon indigenous peoples has entered the modern discourse. Now we have access to new resources, and conversations are ongoing with scholars of different nationalities and disciplines, including colonial and cultural studies, archaeology, and anthropology. We can also listen to Gauguin’s descendants and to indigenous South Pacific artists. They offer a refreshing set of social, artistic, and political references.

Elizabeth C. Childs carries us into the twentieth century with her summary of Gauguin’s depictions of the young Tahitian he called Teha’amana, who became his “embodiment of the artist’s travels, his longings and his nostalgic attempts to take part in an ‘authentic’ Tahitian culture” (231). As Childs points out, the large scale and frontal nudity in some of these paintings did not transfer easily to Western subjects: German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker shocked critics in 1906 with a self-portrait that owed much to Gauguin is this regard (236). Childs’s brief descriptions of the work of such modern Pacific Islanders as Samoan Selina Tusitala Marsh, Maori artist Kay George, and Samoan digital artist Tyla Vaeau Ta’ufo’ou open the door to an awareness of their responses to Gauguin’s works across their geographical and cultural divide from European art traditions (244–46).

Heather Waldroup’s article draws upon Pacific writers, including Greg Dening and Caroline Vercoe, to launch us into ways the work and ideas of artists from across the globe can enrich our understanding of Gauguin’s art today. She illustrates work by several Hawaiian artists, including Debra Drexler’s challenging 2002 installation Gauguin’s Zombie (266–70). Her observations about the colonialist baggage, or “cargo,” Gauguin imposed on the images of his tropical paradise lead us into the fierce polemics launched by current defenders of indigenous culture (257).

As both Childs and Waldroup focus on indigenous women, they point the reader beyond Broude’s book. One could cite, for example, the recent contributions of Kehinde Wiley, who lives in both Senegal and Los Angeles. Traveling to Tahiti, he recorded the reaction of Tahitian mahus (males raised to assume the role of a female within a Polynesian family) to works by Gauguin shown at the Templon Gallery, Paris, in summer 2019. During a mock television program, Samoan artist Yuki Kihara introduced several trans female friends in Samoa to reproductions of Gauguin’s paintings. Without presenting the paintings by name or context, Kihara asked them to analyze the works. Their perspective has little to do with Western responses to Gauguin’s oeuvre: they introduced fresh story lines both hilarious and eye-opening for each painting, reactions that reflect their own society and not that of Gauguin (Yuki Kihara, First Impressions: Paul Gauguin, video commissioned by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, 2018).

My own work focuses on Gauguin’s works and everyday life in the Marquesas (1901–3). The people he frequently visited, both fellow colonials and native Marquesans, frame his art, as do the battles between rapidly dying traditions and the omnipresent church and French powers controlling their lives. On-the-ground research and long discussions with Gauguin’s descendants—especially women and ethnic Polynesians—and native feminist activists such as Debora Kimitété illuminate the huge gap between formalist and Eurocentric analyses of Gauguin’s work and an understanding of the local conditions and traditions that informed his creative process. Broude’s book is an important bookend to an era of art history. It leads us to a new approach that will encourage us to listen to the voices of indigenous peoples as they share with us their history, beliefs, and observations about Paul Gauguin’s work.

Caroline Boyle-Turner
Independent Art Historian and Executive Director Emerita, Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art